This pattern developed in various forms across history — slave and owner in the ancient world, serf and lord under feudalism, and proletarian and capitalist in the modern age. What each form of class society has in common is a ruling class that appropriates the majority of society’s wealth and a labouring majority that creates, but does not control, that wealth.
A class is a group of people who share the same relationship to the mode of production. Marx explained:
In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner and reciprocally exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations to one another, and only within these social connections and relations does their influence upon nature operate — i.e., does production take place.
These social relations between the producers, and the conditions under which they exchange their activities and share in the total act of production, will naturally vary according to the character of the means of production.
The ‘character of the means of production’ in early civilisation was based upon the system of ancient communal ownership, accompanied to varying extents by slavery. Typically, the principal classes were a ruling aristocracy and priesthood, a mass of workers of varying kinds, and slaves. These formed a hierarchy of power ranging upwards from people who were literally the possessions of others to despots boasting kinship with the gods.
The transition to class society
As we have said before, prehistoric society was probably egalitarian. There wasn’t enough food for some members of the tribe to hoard any at others’ expense, and every person’s contribution will have been important. There was therefore little social basis for one group of people to exert power over another or for inequality in the distribution of resources. These observations receive some support by the prevalence of egalitarianism in surviving hunter-gatherer societies.
Although Paleolithic humans had the skills and technology to put our species on a secure footing, we did not yet have the social surplus necessary for society to be able to divide into classes. The only division was according to sex, where men hunted big game and women foraged and raised children; this was based upon the difficulty for women bearing children of participating in a hunt. But it seems unlikely that this brought with it conceptions of one sex’s work being more important than another’s, as happened later. Land and tools were held in common. Engels wrote that the gentile chief “stands in the midst of society” (The Origin of the Family). The hunter-gatherer mode of production therefore was a pre-class society.
This is not to say that no differentiation of rank or status existed — the bodies found at Sungir, with their burial objects and masses of beads, imply a certain special status. Archaeologists sometimes use the term ‘chiefdom’ in referring to such ranked societies. But the existence of a hierarchy of status is not the same as division into classes based upon unequal ownership of the means of production. A person in pre-class society could be highly respected without them claiming any disproportionate control over that society’s resources, and would have lived in the same relationship to the mode of production as the rest of the tribe.
Rock art by San bushmen, north of Mossel Bay in South Africa. Prehistoric art tends to depict humans as a collective, without special status being accorded to dominant individuals. Photo: Andrew Moir.
Early settlements like Çatalhöyük are often striking for the absence of large homes set apart from the rest, or of evidence for significant differentiation in how wealth was shared. Settlements were based upon households, often with shared kinship, in which all members had obligations to the others and in which neither sex was dominant over the other. This was not because of any innate moral goodness but a necessity — the group needed to support all its component parts if it was to succeed.
This changed when the Neolithic Revolution was succeeded by the Urban. The possibility of some people controlling more resources was not of course enough. It took a few thousand years before the innovations of the Neolithic could produce mature class society.
How then did the rise of classes occur?
Agricultural society, with its larger populations, introduced many new problems. There would be disputes over marriages, or land, which in settled society could no longer be resolved simply by one group moving away. Rising populations put pressure upon supplies of food and housing. Inequalities in wealth led to the novel problem of thieving. And there were military threats from other societies. Such considerations made it necessary to develop a new level of social organisation and leadership, with more formalised structures.
A new layer of specialists therefore arose to solve the new problems of cultivator society. These administrators settled disputes, exacted payments, approved public projects, distributed the surplus, and so on, and originally operated as a kind of council of elders. In Sumeria, during times of war a lugal or ‘big man’ would be appointed with special powers. In the beginning this was a useful social development that would help a more complex society to function, and the ‘chieftains’ were still not differentiated enough to form a privileged class.
Over time these specialists perfected their skills, taking centralised control of public finances and of the military; their successes in war won them particular prestige, and resources with which to reward followers. The ‘big men’ gradually extended their power to the point of appointing their own successors and thus creating dynasties. They had become kings.
The storehouses of the surplus, always the principal focus of the community, became centres of power, its administrators figures of prestige raised above the common people. This was the origin of the priesthood, whose temples were the largest buildings in early cities, and who stood to gain a great deal by providing the ‘big man’ with religious legimitisation. As the surplus product of society increased, so did the power of the ‘big men’ relative to other members of society. Jared Diamond wrote:
Once food can be stockpiled, a political elite can gain control of food produced by others, assert the right of taxation, escape the need to feed itself, and engage full-time in political activities. Hence moderate-sized agricultural societies are often organised in chiefdoms, and kingdoms are confined to large agricultural societies.
Thus we see the creation of a ruling class.
In this way, after a few thousand years the seeds sown by the Neolithic Revolution grew to maturity, and class society made its first appearance — roughly coinciding with ‘history’. In ancient Sumer there was a word for ‘slave girl’ by 3000 BCE. In the Babylonian civilisation, society seems to have been divided into three classes: the amelu, or government officials, priests and soldiers at the top of the hierarchy; the mushkinu who were merchants, teachers, shopkeepers, artisans and labourers; and a bottom layer of slaves.
As for the power of the priesthood, Gordon Childe cites a telling decree from the Sumerian city of Lagash:
Favoured priests practised various forms of extortion (overcharging for burials, for instance) and treated the god’s (i.e. the community’s) land equipment and servants as their own private property and personal slaves. Then ‘the high priest came into the garden of the poor... and took wood therefrom.’ ‘If a great man’s house adjoined that of an ordinary citizen,’ the former might annex the humble dwelling without paying any proper compensation to its owner… This text gives us an unmissable glimpse of a real conflict of classes.
The surplus produced by the new economy was, in fact, concentrated in the hands of a relatively small class.
Needless to say, this meant a considerable gulf in living standards between the aristocracy and the common people. For example, Diamond observed:
Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae circa 1500 B.C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean mummies from circa A.D. 1000, the elite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.
Class society was not an inevitable outcome of the Neolithic Revolution — Diamond cites the example of Papua Guinea, which discovered agriculture in around 7000 BCE but preserved an egalitarian social system until the arrival of Europeans. Every society proceeds according to its own conditions, resulting in a rich range of outcomes. This does not mean however that broad patterns are not clear.
Increasingly, society was based upon exploitation. A labouring majority produced a social surplus which was then appropriated by a minority. In order to protect this process, the ruling class had to introduce the novel concept that some members of a society had a right to accumulate wealth even if it meant hardship for others, and that some members of society ought to work for the benefit of a leisured few. This did not necessarily mean the institution of private property — in early civilisation it was sufficient to control the surplus extracted by the workers from communal property. Where the old chieftain system still obliged those with authority to use it for the common good, the aristocracies of the early civilisations preserved the illusion of acting in the common interest while enriching themselves. New rules had to be introduced to enshrine the right of an elite to control a disproportionate amount of society’s wealth, laying the basis for legal systems and requiring ‘special bodies of armed men’ to enforce them. The social order of prehistory was truly broken, and embarked upon an era of kings, pharaohs and emperors.
The evidence for the existence of class society is so strong that it is uncontroversial among anthropologists and archaeologists . Renfrew and Bahn for example observe of early state societies: “Society no longer depends totally upon kin relationships: it is now stratified into different classes.” Or Bruce Trigger: “‘Early civilisation’ may thus be summarily defined as the earliest and simplest form of class-based society... Power was based primarily on the control of agricultural surpluses, which the upper classes extracted in various ways from the rest of the population.”
If it seems extraordinary that one section of the population would allow itself to be treated in this way, we must remember that these developments were gradual and grew out of the social conditions of the times. Labourers did not wake up one morning and suddenly find themselves the victims of exploitation: class society grew out of a genuine and necessary reorganisation of social relations that kept early communities functioning. The priests who governed the surplus were supposedly providing a service for the social good, and the more society prospered the more the labouring masses, already afraid of famine, flood and wars, felt awe and a sense of debt. The ruling class ‘guaranteed’ the population against both natural and human-made calamities, a point repeatedly struck home by elaborate religious rituals and grandiose works of art.
The Indus Valley civilisation: a classless society?
The civilisation that appeared around 2600 BCE in the Indus Valley in modern-day Pakistan, whose major cities were Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, poses us with a historical puzzle. This sophisticated culture had high quality urban planning, and built public buildings, baths, city walls and advanced sanitation. Yet at the same time, the culture’s rulers are, in Colin Renfrew’s words, ‘self-effacing’ : there is no evidence of elite burials or palaces, there are no large scale temples, and political and class divisions remain obscure. The Indus Valley culture achieved a high quality of art without the overt ‘iconography of power’ associated with other advanced societies of the time. This does not necessarily mean that class society did not exist, but we do not have the same material evidence as elsewhere.
Childe however noted:
Well-planned streets and a magnificent system of drains, regularly cleared out, reflect the vigilance of some municipal government. Its authority was strong enough to secure the observance of town-planning bye-laws and the maintenance of the approved lines for streets over several reconstructions rendered necessary by floods.
Renfrew goes on, ‘Clearly, there are different kinds of power, and power is attained in different ways.’ It is extremely improbable that the Indus Valley culture had developed urban civilisation without also developing class society, but its precise social structure remains open until archaeology can provide us with new answers.
The contradictions of progress
The consequence of class society for artists was a change in their social role. Whereas Stone Age art served the entire community, artists now owed service to the god-king, and their work had to help immortalise him in paint and stone. The most astonishing artistic achievements of early civilisation — the pyramids and ziggurats, the colossal statues, the gorgeous palaces and temples — are dedicated to the kings who embodied the ruling class, and to gods whom those kings used for legitimisation.
Should we see these works as a grotesque waste of human resources? In one sense they certainly were: the Pyramids, for example, are burial mounds dedicated to an afterlife that simply does not exist. Nonetheless they provided a livelihood for probably several thousand workers, and left us with some of the most awe-inspiring wonders of human labour. It may indeed have been preferable for such wonders to have expressed the will of the common people, and been directed by them, but there is little point in condemning now-extinct conditions, or dreaming about a course of events that could never have taken place. It is better to admire the works that resulted from the definite social conditions of the era as remarkable human and social achievements — the Pharaohs would not personally have lifted a finger to construct the tombs that were to receive them — and concentrate upon changing one’s own time.
Civilisation proved to be a mixed blessing. While the benefits of a secure food surplus are self-evident, there was a price to pay in leaving primitive communism behind, as pointed out by Engels:
The power of this primitive community had to be broken, and it was broken. But it was broken by influences which from the very start appear as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral greatness of the old gentile society. The lowest interests — base greed, brutal appetites, sordid avarice, selfish robbery of the common wealth — inaugurate the new, civilised, class society. It is by the vilest means — theft, violence, fraud, treason — that the old classless gentile society is undermined and overthrown. And the new society itself, during all the two and a half thousand years of its existence, has never been anything else but the development of the small minority at the expense of the great exploited and oppressed majority; today it is so more than ever before.
The concept of dividing resources unequally on the basis of birth seems to fair-minded people a repugnant invention. But the existence of specialists was hugely progressive. It enabled huge advances in production and in the accumulation of human knowledge. It is to class society that we owe the relative material luxury — in advanced countries, even the working class is vastly better off than our Neolithic predecessors — in which millions of people live today.
It is because productive forces have grown to the point where everyone in the world could lead a life of comfort and dignity, but is being hindered by private ownership of the means of production, that Marxists struggle to bring about the next great stage in human history that will eventually bring classes to an end. For there is nothing that even the most powerful potentate, ancient or modern, can do to escape from history: no culture, no class, no mode of production, is immune from the transitory nature of human society. However immense the tombs and images the ruling class ordered to be built in its name, the search for immortality would always be futile — an irony summed up by Shelley in his famous poem Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
 Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital (1847).
 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (1998).
 According to the Code of Hammurabi.
 V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (1942).
 Jared Diamond, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race (first published in Discover magazine, 1987).
 The existence of class society is uncontroversial — the existence of class struggle is less so. Marx’s materialist conception of history may in general co-exist peacefully with bourgeois science until it applies itself to capitalism, whereupon those who identify with the bourgeoisie find the logic of materialism suddenly disagreeable.
 Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: Theory, Method and Practice (5th ed., 2008).
 Bruce Trigger, Understanding Early Civilisations (2003).
 Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
 V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (1942).
 Engels, close of Chapter 3, ‘The Iroquois Gens’, of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).